Sunday, May 24, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2014

"Comparison is the thief of joy."--Theodore Roosevelt

"Boyhood was overrated."---Some jackass on the internet who only talks about James Bond and superheroes

Hello everyone, and welcome back to another long-overdue musing by me on the best films of the past year. For those of you who do not know, this is an annual tradition of mine that strangely takes up about 1/3 of the posts on this blog. Now, as you definitely noticed, this one is overdue as well but, in my defense, while I start thinking about the list around October, I don't really start compiling it until awards season. And while I saw enough Imitation Catchers  and The Selma Games to be able to make awkward verbal quips while watching the Oscars, I always give myself a few weeks to catch up on the movies I did not see. Then, give or take a few more weeks to deal with homework and attempt to be social during spring break, and I'm usually ready to compile the list around April. Of course, this particular April set me back again by quickly proving to be the worst April I've ever had, for reasons I will not get into because this is not that kind of blog. I don't talk about my feelings here; I just tell you what opinions on popular culture you should have if you want my respect.

Anyway, now it's May, and I just graduated.

Now, I admit, this one was difficult. Some of your favorite movies of the year may not be on here. But fret not, that has more to do with just how many great movies I saw this year (hint: way more than last year). Maybe it's because I actually had a brief stint as a critic for a news blog, or maybe it was because I started my own online web show with my friend Chase at Shirtless Reviews (it's as professional as it sounds). But, I had access to some truly great films this year, and I can't wait to yell at you about them.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

20th Century Fox/Marvel
Yep, there's a superhero movie this time, although are you honestly surprised? I've already explained in my comic-con post about why I love X-Men movies, but Days of Future Past is more than just an X-Men movie; it's a really good X-Men movie. Good enough that it took the Number 10 spot away from other great movies about fictional American superheroes like Captain America and American Sniper. I also struggled with Imitation Game, another quality movie about a troubled British man who uses a machine in his basement to help people who persecute him. In the end I gave preference to X-Men if only because of the involved scope of the story, and the unbelievable cast.

And Future Past does have arguably the greatest cast ever assembled for a superhero movie. The plot, in which we discover that the world from the movies we (or at least, I) grew up with has gone to shit, when the bigoted and awful people of the world invented giant evil robots that have destroyed civilization, and the X-Men, namely the benevolent Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the villainous Magneto (Ian Mckellen), have come up with a way to send Wolverine (do I even need to say it?) back in time to the seventies to stop a series of events involving Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). But that's not the good part; that comes when our favorite Marvel anti-hero finds out that his mentor (James McAvoy) and hero was, at a younger age, a drug-addict, and his most powerful enemy (Michael Fassbender) was in prison. Worse, he needs both of their help, and he needs them to get along.

Obviously, this is the fourth superhero movie to make my list, and doubtful to be the last, but what Days of Future Past adds to the genre is a story that tries (not always successfully) to balance an enormous cast with character interaction and intimate relations. The result is a darker, more sentimental special-effects blockbuster anchored by bravado performances by the always underrated McAvoy and the (shall-we-say) magnetic Fassbender, and steadied by the always-capable Jackman. Lawrence, Stewart, Dinklage, Ellen Page, a mostly-silent (but expressive as ever) McKellen, and a borderline movie-stealing scene from Evan Peters even out the movie even more. While it functions as arguably the greatest work of fan-service in recent memory, it's also a surprisingly sentimental and affecting bridge between two generations of cast and fandom, and an appropriately entertaining experience.

9. Fury

Columbia Pictures

David Ayer's epic WWII action film about a group of assholes who live in a tank went strangely unreported on during the end of the year season. It's not paced incredibly well, there are a couple plot elements that don't add up, and the gritty, violent World War II epic is not exactly new. However, Fury has several elements that more than elevate it from the standard war movie fare, and indeed make it one of the best action films, and certainly the best war films, in several years. Key among those is the grittiness. Fury's situation is not likeable, and neither are most of its characters, with Logan Lerman's Pvt. Ellison acting as the lone conscience of a tank crew charged with leading the invasion into Germany at the end of the war, only to find that, even at the war's end, there are still irredeemable horrors he must not only fight, but live with.

Most of these horrors come from his own experience with his fellow soldiers in the tank, a talented cast including Michael Pena, Shane from Walking Dead, and of course, Brad Pitt, who heads the film with powerhouse work as the group's haunted and brutal leader. But, as you may have heard, it's Shia LaBeouf who makes the film worth-watching, with a performance so authentic it could only have come from someone who quite literally went insane on set. All of that, combined with several truly
harrowing action scenes involving tanks, including an unforgettable sequence with a German Tiger I, and enough flying tracer bullets to make you think you're watching Star Wars. Fury is not an easy film to watch, both in terms of it's subject material and it's direction, but is as authentic, intense, and harrowing an experience as I've had in a while.

8. The Babadook
IFC Films

I'll have to admit, it's been a pretty long time since I've recommended a horror movie this highly (or it was at the time of writing this, recently I've also seen It Follows). Don't let the hilariously unpronounceable name trick you, this is the most terrifying movie I've seen in a very long time, and certainly the best horror movie to come out in nearly a decade. A lot of this is simply the lighting and imagery. Jennifer Kent (give a hand for a female director everybody!) makes an effort to bring a dingy, shadowy presence to a suburban house. Dark top hats, cloaks, black lampshades, and other stretches of darkness will make the more paranoid viewer think he is seeing the central monster (one of the more creative I've seen) everywhere. He might be.

Like the best works of horror, it's the plot and the setting that drive the movie. We follow Amelia, a stressed out, working-class, single mother who has had to raise her almost seven-year-old son alone since the husband died in childbirth. Or, rather, on the way to the hospital. As a result, her child, while exceptionally bright, even likeable at times, is something of a little shit, and his relation to her, particularly around his birthday, causes her anxiety. She loves her son, she really does, she just has to keep reminding herself that she does. There's an unexplained shadow in their relationship, a shadow that is given life when they find a mysterious pop-up book on the bookshelf that introduces them to an unstoppable, violent apparition that feeds off of Amelia's stress and anger. It works because it draws off character relationships, carries masterful craftwork, and just because it's damn scary. If one were to keep in mind Donnie Darko and Take Shelter are as much psychological thrillers as horror films, and that Trick r' Treat technically never saw a theatrical release, then I may very well call this the best pure horror film to see a theater in decades.

7. Snowpiercer
CJ Entertainment
Don't be fooled by the fact that the main character is played by Captain America himself, Bong Joon-Ho's masterful take on sci-fi/action (a genre combination I may have something of a like for, if you couldn't tell) is technically a South Korean movie, albeit one with a diverse cast including Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Song Kang-Ho, and at least one other casting I won't spoil for you. I mean most of the main actors are still white and the movie is almost entirely in English, but the crew and extra cast is meant to give the film a universal quality, owing to it's setting: a train that travels around the world and, after the world ends in a global freeze, stands as the last bastion of human civilization. Naturally, it represents a not-so-subtle microcosm of human society. In other words, if you're rich, and paid for VIP room on the train, you're in the front. If you're poor, and paid standard fare, you're in the back. And if you snuck onto the train because, you know, the world was ending, you belong in the way, way back.

Like, you're at a water park with Sam Rockwell. That's how way back you are.
Curtis Everett (Evans) is in the way, way, back, and is not very happy about, so he plans, with an army of his oppressed buddies, to force his way to the front to make things better for everyone. Axes are involved in his plan.

Snowpiercer is a thoughtful and engaging action thriller that's pushed not only by it's performances, but it's creative and frequently fascinating setting. The fact that Evans and Kang-Ho, action stars from entirely different parts of the world who speak entirely different languages, can act off one another as well as they do, particularly in one scene near the end, is sort of magic. These characters, good and bad, are put through circumstances not normally seen in films of a larger budget, and, in his quest to get to the front of the train, Everett frequently engages in behavior that makes both him, and the audience, question his very humanity. The green-screen effects could be better and there are a few unanswered questions about the train, but this is still a violent, thrilling ride that begs to be seen.

6. Frank

Film4/Irish Film Board
Frank is probably the most unknown movie on this list, and it might also be the most bizarre. Up-and-comer Domnhall Gleeson stars as Jon, an aspiring songwriter with high ambitions but absolutely no talent who comes across the world's strangest band, the Soronprfbs, an indie rock (?) group centered around an enigmatic singer named Frank. Like the movie, the man is borderline unexplainable. He spends most of his time on a compound in Ireland, creates odd music, and is played by Michael Fassbender. Oh, and he wears a gigantic paper-mache/fiberglass head which he refuses to take off. There's something magical and ingenious about Frank, and the entire band is drawn in by the guy's cult of personality, even though it very soon becomes abundantly clear that he has fairly extreme social instabilities. As a result, he is guarded by his number-one fan and keyboardist Don (Scoot McNairy), and his equally unstable love-interest Clara (Maggie Gylenhaal).

Jon is drawn in by Frank's apparent musical prodigy and attempts to introduce the band to the world, hoping to make it big, but very soon realizes the extent of the group's, and Frank's, problems. Like the character, the movie Frank is incredibly strange and weird, but has a magnetic charm and brilliance to it. However, it's not quite the quirky zane-fest it might seem; Frank deals with issues of art, fame, and most importantly, mental disorders, in a mature and realistic way. It's also driven by a both affecting and hilarious, if mostly faceless, performance by Fassbender. There's no real explaining Frank, it just is. And what it is is pretty fantastic.

5. The Lego Movie


Oh boy, have I been waiting to tell you about this one. There's no reason a movie that is unabashedly a two-hour ad for Legos should be a good movie. The fact that it's pretty clearly one of the year's very best movies is a miracle that requires nothing short of narrative brilliance, which it very clearly has. The Lego Movie is one long validation for its own existence. It doesn't just justify why a movie so clearly commercial can still be entertaining, its very themes are an explanation of how, in today's world, the messages in commercialized content may very well be the only messages we still have. The important thing is to not let those messages strip you of your individuality.

I could go on about this movie; about how Phil Lord and Chris Miller strive to recreate the feel of playing with the blocky toys as a child, about how the movie serves as a brilliant defense of the millenial generation and the concept of "everyone being special" (a theme expounded upon by better writers than me; they do exist, believe it or not), about how the CGI is so well-done you can see the tiny imperfections in the fucking plastic, but I'll save most of that for another paper. Instead, because it's how I've been filling my paragraphs this long, I'll talk more about the voice cast, including Hollywood's new "It-Man" Chris Pratt as a little Lego construction dude who may hold the secret to saving the Universe, Elizabeth Banks as his badass love interest, Will Ferrell as the evil President Business, Morgan Freeman as a literally blind prophet, Nick Offerman (perfectly cast) as a pirate cyborg, and Will Arnett as fucking Batman. But it's Liam Neeson who steals the movie by voicing a comically schizophrenic police officer literally named Good Cop/Bad Cop. The Lego Movie is one of the most genuinely creative, clever, and outright hilarious movies I think I've ever seen. Everything is indeed awesome.

4. Interstellar

Paramount Pictures/WB
It just wouldn't be a Ryan Downs top ten list without a Chris Nolan movie would it? It's been asked around why people from my particular age range have such an affection for the director, and the simplest answer is just that he makes films that are huge and affecting, while also serving as some of the more thrilling insights into science fiction we have today. Much like Inception, Interstellar is an entirely original piece that, against everything we have been taught about how modern Hollywood works, somehow manages to accumulate the budget to tell it's thoughtful narrative. The end result is a science fiction film that, while not completely realistic (it's a movie), still manages to keep closer to what we currently know about theoretical physics than a science fiction blockbuster logically should. It's more in the realm of Sci-fi than last year's Gravity was, yet it's also probably, against all odds, more sensible. It's also a better movie. This is all almost as against-the-grain for the modern blockbuster as the fact that it exists on film, not digital, or the fact that large swaths of the movie are filmed using practical effects; including several scenes that would surprise you.

But what keeps Nolan's film tied to his last original Sci-fi thriller is the story, which, like that film, plays with the concepts of space and time, and their manifestations, and the notion of a man trying to conquer them in the pursuit of the important thing in his life, returning to his children. In this case, we follow Cooper (the latest in McConaughey's glorious recent run), a former NASA pilot who is forced, along with the rest of the planet, into an agrarian lifestyle following a worldwide plague, only to eventually realize his dream of going into space, farther than anyone else has gone, when a Dr. Brand (Nolan's muse, Michael Caine) informs him that Earth has become too toxic to sustain life. The only hope for mankind lies on Cooper piloting a ship with several astronauts through a wormhole through space, which will spit them out in another galaxy where, hopefully, the group can find a planet hospitable enough to serve as the future home for the human race. Among the candidates are a planet covered in water, with waves the size of mountains. Another, a planet where the very clouds are frozen solid. As if saving the future of humanity isn't enough, Cooper has to find a way to save the humans already on earth, and, just maybe, make it back to his family; a goal that may very well require him to defy every known law that governs reality.

Like I said, Nolan is no stranger to telling intimate stories in humongous ways, and Interstellar is, in many ways, his most emotional. As a result, there are some inconsistencies, and gaps in pacing, that the more nitpicky will notice. With his previous films, most notably the Batman saga, the director has used his multi-million-dollar lens to judge the United States's shortcomings, but with this film he praises the country's biggest public endeavor (and one it, sadly, seems to have given up on with the decision to defund NASA, a choice pretty blatantly condemned by the movie); while analyzing the humanity, courage, and optimism that pushes men to travel into space. It also features performances from Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and a few more which I will not give away. Those robots are pretty cool too.

3. Foxcatcher

Annapurna Pictures
Foxcatcher is like the R-rated Super Mario Brothers movie; it's a story about a famous brother, a less-famous brother, and a creepy monster who lives in a castle. To say that the movie that stars American comedy treasure Steve Carell as legendary American creepy asshole John Du Pont is the most uncomfortable viewing experience I've had this year is probably not very surprising. It's also probably not surprising that Bennet Miller's Foxcatcher is also the best shot, and probably best acted, movie of the year. It's the sort of movie my film class warned me about; the kind where far more of the storytelling is done through the visuals than through dialogue. Foxcatcher tells the true story of the heir to the unspeakably large Du Pont fortune, John Du Pont, and his relationship with Mark Schultz. Schultz, a former Olympic medalist, has a meager life, and is persistently in the shadow of his more successful older brother, gold medalist Dave Schultz. Wanting to be "the best", Mark becomes ecstatic when he is recruited to help coach a wrestling team with Du Pont, a man who doesn't know anything about wrestling or really how to communicate with people.

Mark believes in Du Pont's notions of American exceptionalism and helps recruit a team, but begins to realize the extent of Du Pont's mental instability and loneliness, while Du Pont begins to realize that he needs Dave to be truly successful and begins to court him instead.  The rest, as they say, is history. I mean don't look up the history, if you don't already know about it, because it spoils the movie. Foxcatcher's pacing is incredibly slow and deliberate; this is not a thriller, although it's atmosphere provokes such a profound feeling of discomfort it may as well be. There's also those career-best performances from Ruffalo and Tatum as the central brothers, and the now-infamous, startling transformation of Carell into Du Pont. It's a consistently unnerving, fascinating performance from a great actor, although the brightest spot may still be Ruffalo's Dave. This is a visually fascinating film about a lonely old man's obsession, but, in many ways, it's also a film about a lonely old country's obsession with it's own supposed superiority. This is a film that should be watched, but you'd be forgiven for not wanting to watch it twice.

2. Whiplash

Sony Pictures Classics
This is probably the one you heard the most about, and for good reason. Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer named Andrew who joins a prestigious conservatory with the dream of becoming a part of a jazz band. His aspirations, not unlike Mark Schultz, involve becoming, simply, "the best", so when he is put into the top jazz group in the school, he counts his blessings initially, until he discovers that the group's instructor, a man named Terrence Fletcher, to be a loud, abusive, abrasive, and generally terrifying man. The rest of the movie is a power-play between the two to see how far Andrew can make it without being broken by Fletcher.

The pacing is tight as a drum (get it?), that rarely drags or rushes (get it??) and is consistently intense. J.K. Simmons' now-legendary performance as Fletcher, easily the year's best villain, pushes the piece and forces the viewer to come to terms with questions about verbal, and even physical, abuse and whether it helps or hurts someone who truly wants to be "the best". But don't forget to give credit to Miles Teller, who grounds the movie as it's obsessive hero with another great performance. I first mentioned him last year when talking about "The Spectacular Now", and he's phenomenal here. The thing about Whiplash is that there's not too much to say, it's brilliantly written, economically directed, and sublimely satisfying. To say anything more would be to overcomplicate a fantastically simple premise and possibly spoil a great story.

1. Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

New Regency Pictures/Fox Searchlight
I liked it first. Let the record show that I saw this beautiful piece of work back in October, when it was released in only fifty theaters. The film follows Michael Keaton, an actor who rose to fame for playing a comic-book superhero thirty years ago. He's playing Riggan Thompson, an actor who rose to fame for playing a comic-book superhero thirty years ago. The similarities between Thompson and Keaton have been snarked about by people snarkier than me (yes, those exist too), but it's important to note that both left the superhero business during their prime. While we know that Keaton did so out of loyalty to Tim Burton, and because Batman: Forever was a hopeless piece of crap from day one, Riggan's reasons are a bit more suspect, although "general apathy towards the Hollywood studio system" seems to be a fitting one.
Can you blame him?
As a result, Riggan Thompson has been struggling with his success and artistic integrity for decades, although when we meet him, in the middle of casting a broadway play based on a Raymond Carver book, he has neither. He's homeless, hears the voice of his star character in his head, and his only real family are his actors, Zach Galifianakis, and his daughter, a recovering drug-addict played, in a career-best performance, by Emma Stone. She represents the "millenial" generation in the script in a realistic way; our main character does not understand her and is frustrated by her, when he may just be projecting his own insecurities about life onto her. Edward Norton shows up as well, his performance as Mike Shiner, a famous actor brought in to give the play life, being as much of satirical look at his own supposedly difficult reputation in Hollywood as Keaton's background. You probably know this as well by now, but the entire film, or the majority of it, is edited too look as if it's one long take. The shooting is breathtaking. The score is also probably even more percussion-based than Whiplash.

To get one thing straight, Birdman is a superhero movie, and it probably takes a superhero nerd to know that. You have a main character who is stuck trying to decide if he is who he thinks he is, or who the world apparently needs him to be (the latter option being a violent man in a mask), he may have superpowers, and there is a large, bombastic, blatantly pointless CGI action scene in the third act (ok, not really). In the process, it's also a film made by an industry, and for a generation, trying desperately to decide the very same identity dilemma. Do we make art, or do we make superheroes, and are they mutually exclusive?  This is a gorgeous, hilarious, and affecting movie that doesn't always get it's point across, but maybe doesn't need to. But it does need to be seen to be believed.

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